An apology tour…for France

The New Republic‘s David A. Bell contrasts France’s approach to its checkered past with that of the United States:

Is your president a socialist who has repeatedly apologized for his country? If you are an American, the answer to this question is no, despite apoplectic Republican claims to the contrary. If you are French, however, it is most certainly yes. Not only is President François Hollande a proud Socialist; this year he has made two high-profile apologies for France. This summer, on the seventieth anniversary of the notorious “vel d’Hiv” roundup of Jews in Paris. he gave a speech acknowledging the country’s guilt in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, And this past week, he ended official denials that the Parisian police had carried out a massacre of Algerian protestors in 1961, and paid homage to the victims. The two statements say a great deal about French public life today, about the country’s relation to its history, and about its widening differences from the United States.

Both of the incidents for which Hollande apologized, in the name of the French Republic, were long hidden from sight. After the liberation of France in 1944, a battered and demoralized population consoled itself with the myth that all but a few traitors and criminals had resisted the Nazi occupation. The deportation of some 76,000 Jews to the death camps was blamed on the Germans. Only slowly, and in large part thanks to the effort of North American historians (especially Robert Paxton of Columbia) did the full sordid story emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the French had in fact supported the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain for several years. Many had applauded, enthusiastically, anti-Semitic policies modeled on those of the Nazis. And while it was the Germans who demanded the deportation of Jews from France, the job of identifying, arresting and transporting these Jews was carried out entirely by French authorities, including the horrific, days-long incarceration of 13,000 Jews in the “Vel d’Hiv”—an indoor bicycle racetrack—without adequate food, water or ventilation…

In the United States, sentiments of this sort, apropos of the darker episodes in American history, are anything but uncommon in university classrooms. In politics, however, they have become virtually taboo. In the civil rights era, American politicians could speak frankly and eloquently about the ways that slavery and institutionalized racism stained the American past. In the 1980’s, Congress could pass legislation acknowledging the wrong of Japanese-American interment during World War II, and granting compensation to its victims. But in the past quarter-century, conservatives have successfully cast any attempt to discuss the country’s historical record impartially in the political realm as a species of heresy—“blaming America first,” as Jeanne Kirkpatrick put it as far back as 1984. A turning point of sorts came in 1994, when the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit of the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, accompanied by material that highlighted the human toll of the bombing,  inviting debate on its morality.  The outcry from conservatives and veterans groups was deafening, and few politicians dared to defend the Smithsonian, which eventually canceled the exhibit.


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